Ethiopia, Kathmandu, Iceland and France in full color on your coffee table TRAVEL BOOKS

December 16, 1990|By Lynn Williams

The Horn of Africa, comprising Ethiopia and its surrounding countries, is cut off from the rest of the continent by mountain ranges and coastline, forming an "ark" that, in the words of author Graham Hancock, "shelters an astonishing variety of human societies: from the ancient and highly sophisticated to the remote, simple and untouched. . . ." (The region has other ark connections as well; this is the traditional homeland of Noah, and the ancient Ethiopian city of Axum is, "Raiders" notwithstanding, the legendary resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.) The fittingly titled African Ark (photographs by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, text by Graham Hancock, Abrams, 320 pages, $65) is the result of five years' worth of adventuring by two remarkably brave women photographers, who traveled by foot, mule or four-wheel-drive into remote areas that had rarely been visited by outsiders and remain untouched by the colonial heritage that has so altered the traditional cultures of other parts of Africa. Mr. Hancock's words provide learned historical-anthropological background for the women's pictures of the astonishingly beautiful, inexpressibly foreign people of the Horn, and rituals that date to the cradle days of this "cradle of mankind."

I must confess to knowing Katmandu only as the answer to a joke "Jeopardy" question. ("Who sleeps with Catwoman?") But a new book has arrived to enlighten me, and other heathen, not only about the semilegendary Himalayan valley but about its proper spelling. Kathmandu, the Forbidden Valley (photography by R. Ian Lloyd, text by Wendy Moore, St. Martin's Press, 160 pages, $40) reveals a part of Nepal that until the 1950s was known to the rest of the world only by unbelieveable travelers' tales of mysterious skull-decked gods and potentates who wore jewels the size of birds' eggs. When outsiders began to find their way to the valley, they found that the reality was just as colorful as the legend. (Even today, animals are sacrificed to the goddess of victory, and "living goddesses" are chosen from among the ranks of young virgins.) With a prose style that is romantic and descriptive, vividly evoking sights and smells, Ms. Moore tells us about the history, arts, religious practices and agricultural methods of the valley. Mr. Lloyd, a photojournalist based in Singapore, supplies suitably awe-inspiring color photography.

Greenland, the story goes, got its name because its settlers wanted to attract more people to help them tame what was, in reality, a harsh and frigid land. Iceland, on the other hand, was named to keep people away. It was so beautiful that the Icelanders wanted to keep it all to themselves. Iceland: Land of the Sagas (text by David Roberts, photographs by Jon Krakauer, Abrams, 160 pages, $39.95) reveals a superb landscape that has the lush, treeless greenness of Ireland, punctuated with towering waterfalls, snow-capped mountain peaks and millions of winsome puffins. The language of the country has remained unchanged since its founding more than 900 years ago, and the Icelandic people remain in touch with the lore of their Viking ancestors. Our intrepid authors (both mountain climbers) visit the sites that play a role in the ancient sagas, and their text seamlessly weaves descriptions of the place, its wildlife and its people with Iceland's legendary past. It seems fitting that such a wildly dramatic land should have given birth to berserkers and trolls, and this book reads as swiftly as a sword-and-sorcery novel.

The villages of France are not cute in the manner of New England towns, nor quaint in the English hamlet style. Their beauty is more rough-hewn and ancient -- even timeless. The Middle Ages still live in the pages of The Most Beautiful Villages in France (Dominique Reperant, Thames and Hudson, 232 pages, $40); cowled monks and armored knights might find themselves on any of these streets and feel completely at home, so perfectly preserved is the past in such places as Locronan, with its mossy granite houses, and Entrevaux, with its hilltop castle and red-tiled roofs. Every reader will have a different idea as to which village is the loveliest, but the golden hill towns of the Southern provinces, which seem to grow out of the rocks themselves, are certainly in contention. All will make you feel vaguely dissatisfied with your plans for another summer in Ocean City.

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